Kovacevic: Steelers backed into a corner
There might not be a sadder sight, in this or any other realm, than Superman looking vulnerable.
You should have seen Troy Polamalu dragging along his right leg in a big black boot Tuesday, snailing his way through the Steelers' headquarters. There still wasn't any official word on the severity of his aggravated calf injury, but suffice it to say he didn't need a boot the first time around.
Polamalu isn't done, as so many seem to be fretting. It's only a calf injury, he's 31, and he very much has the will to continue what's already a Hall of Fame career. Even if the cape is folded up for good, the cerebral Clark Kent brand of No. 43 is better than most any NFL safety out there.
As nickel back Cortez Allen told me Tuesday, “There's still no one else like him.”
The real question facing the Steelers is how the secondary will get by in the interim, beginning Thursday night in Tennessee.
Think they're up to it?
I feel that way about Ryan Clark, who's been terrific apart from a couple notable brain cramps.
But the rest?
Ike Taylor had a fine 2011 right up until he met Demaryius Thomas in Denver, both at the end of last season and the start of this one. Whether those wounded him or not, overall this season, he's allowed 16 completions on the 29 times his receiver has been the pass target, according to Pro Football Focus. That ranks 134th out of 164 cornerbacks in the NFL.
Taylor can play much better, and he knows it.
Keenan Lewis, a first-year starter, has allowed 15 completions on 24 targets. That ranks 157th. And his next official pass defensed will be his first.
Unlike Taylor, no one knows if Lewis can play better. There's no precedent.
No one knows if Curtis Brown can replace him, either. The franchise's highest draft pick among defensive backs in the past six years — third round, 2011 — still can't find his way to the field.
Allen has fit in with the rest, allowing 10 completions on 14 targets. That ranks 115th.
At safety, Mundy has allowed nine completions on 12 targets. That ranks 119th.
Mike Tomlin strongly hinted Monday that he'll spell Mundy with Will Allen, but that's hardly the cavalry. Allen, 30, is in his ninth NFL season and hasn't made a start since Oct. 4, 2009.
Who among these men looks poised to make a difference?
Naturally, all hands will go up.
“With Troy not being there, it'll be tough, but we strive to pick up our game every week,” Cortez Allen said. “The standard is the standard. We'll get it done.”
“Even with Troy, we've got to get better,” Lewis said.
Lewis is right, of course, as the above numbers illustrate. There's ample room to improve.
But he also made a point to underscore that the Steelers' overall pass defense numbers are “pretty good,” and he's right about that, too: They rank third in the NFL in allowing 185 yards per game. Other than Thomas, no individual receiver has topped 67 yards. In fact, beyond Thomas' 71-yard catch-and-run in the opener, there has been only one other pass of 25 yards or longer.
“We know the numbers that matter,” Lewis said.
Those are fair points based on hard numbers. I can respect that.
As he and Allen both explained, the gap between the team and individual numbers could be based on the defensive coaches, Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake, hoping to avoid big plays.
“We're tackling the catch,” Allen said. “That's not to say we can't still do better, but that's what our focus is.”
And that works just fine in limiting the big plays. But it wasn't nearly good enough when the Eagles drip-drip-dripped their way to a 17-play, 79-yard drive that nearly gave the Steelers a 1-3 record Sunday.
To echo Allen, the Steelers can do better at this position.
That they haven't isn't exactly an accident.
In the six drafts under Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, they've picked only eight defensive backs, none in the top two rounds and only one who found sustained work: That was William Gay, class of 2007. He started last season but was held in such low regard that management didn't lift a pinky to keep him from walking as a free agent afterward.
Most of the rest of the picks are barely worth mentioning. One could argue that Polamalu and Clark not only have covered the Steelers' mistakes on the field, per their job description, but also in the drafts.
And yet, Tomlin and Colbert brought a roster into Latrobe that had no real fail-safe for Polamalu and/or Clark being hurt at safety, and no real replacement for Gay.
The reckoning is at hand.
It might not come against Matt Hasselbeck and a Tennessee offense so plodding that running back Chris Johnson told Nashville reporters this week: “I don't think we're close right now.”
It might not even come before Polamalu returns.
But it will come. And there will be Hail Mary to pay.